Sunday, 8 July 2018

Identity matters

Earlier this week, I read a report by London Times writer Melanie Phillips, who shared that although marginalized groups protest being placed on the outskirts of society, such groups are also often very exclusive, creating safe spaces which are limited to people with a specific identity, such as 'trans' groups, racial groups or feminist groups. Such groups may exclude people of other identity.

Melanie Phillips made the argument that although safe spaces are good, inclusion means that all people should be invited to the party.  She acknowledged that 'race' is a social construct, and spoke of an anti-racism where all people are included, sharing that we are a part of a single human race. And that this human race should include all people if we are to be truly equal, and exist as a single humanity.

That we are a human race is undeniable, and as feminists have previously stated, the true goal is not to reverse power hierarchies, but to create a world where feminism does not need to exist. This world would be all inclusive, social hierarchies will have broken down, and there would be one race, the human race.  However, at present, this world does not exist.

In reality, out groups face discrimination on a continual basis. Sometimes this discrimination is subtle and sometimes it is blatant.  Structural injustices, humiliations, rebuttals and anxieties plague marginalized groups on a daily basis.   These everyday experiences are often invisible to those who do not live with and therefore share the experiences, and as a result, the experiences are often denied.  Reading blogs, articles, comments and web forums show that one of the greatest frustration marginalized groups have is what David Theo Goldberg calls the burden of 'race' (which can be substituted for any other identity).  This burden means the need to prove that injustices do actually exist, and are not simply produced by the over active imagination of the person who suffers.  (This great post by Rumbi gives a personal description of the burden of race and the self doubt this produces).

As an enthusiastic social justice researcher, I have often faced rebuttals when it comes to my own work.  When researching xenophobia during 2008, I was chatting about my findings and was told that perhaps the students 'did not understand' what was happening (blatant discrimination) and were blowing their experiences out of proportion. My masters thesis was motivated by a woman sharing pain during a diversity workshop only to be told that perhaps she was ignored in shopping centres (by group members she had developed emotional connections with) because she 'hadn't made much of an impression'.  The lack of empathy in that statement was completely staggering.

My new research focuses on home, the ecology and the importance of history. Even here I am told that although indigenous spirituality has been ignored, it's okay because there is really a new belief system (western) which can embrace everybody, and many marginalized people like it.  Getting myself so upset over an easily solved problem (such as the eradication of indigenous belief systems) is clearly just my overwrought response to the past.  Silly me.

I am privileged, have lived a middle class lifestyle, and I can be reduced to tears of frustration at times by (hopefully) well meaning people with a heavy dose of denialism.  I am a researcher. I have the privileged choice of abandoning my work in a fit of helpless frustration and finding an easier line of work.  My work is essentially my choice, and my university research has been funded.  In other words, I get something back for my work which is personally rewarding.  And I am motivated by the need for social transformation.

If I didn't, if I was using my thoughts, ideas and insights simply to try to make life more bearable, and I was facing this level of resistance, I would want to give up.  I would want to riot, weep, hang my head, and spend time with people who really, truly, do understand what you are going through.  Such people would have faced similar identity threats. They would not see me as imaginative, irrelevant or overwrought. They would not see me as simply dismissing alternate possibilities for everyone to be happy due to a complete lack of imagination on my own behalf.  They would really, truly see.  I've needed to rely on both my mentor and research group in the past for support and reassurance.  And I am privileged.

Should out groups be inclusive in creating safe spaces?  Not if the burden of race falls upon marginalized groups to prove their experiences are real.  As long as there is one race, but the injustices of the past allow divisions to remain, these inequalities need to be acknowledged.  And if they can only be acknowledged by those who understand, then so be it.  This isn't exclusion.  It isn't a lack of diversity.  It isn't re-creating ghettos where out-groups huddle together in isolation.  It is an acknowledgement of the need for diversity!  An acknowledgement that diverse human experiences exist even if these experiences are not acknowledged by the mainstream.  And they are the acknowledgement of a need for social transformation, because in our current society, 'norms' often don't benefit the minority. Sharing negative experiences takes away individual shame and focuses attention on a need for social change.  It is a move towards true (rather than symbolic) inclusion.

If the need for social change could be listened to, heard and accepted by the mainstream, then we could state the need for inclusive groups.  We could state that this would bring change, and there is a need for one race, the human race.  But this very often doesn't happen.

We can be idealistic and call for a common humanity.  It is worthwhile to do this.  But we also need to acknowledge the pains of marginalized people. We need to acknowledge the need to earn the trust of people who face discrimination instead of demand it.  Then, and only then, can we work towards social transformation as one group, where we are interested in the well being of all.  Until we acknowledge the pain, the demand for inclusion is a defensive means of playing tit - for -tat.  And it is simply another in-group entitlement.

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